“Maybe more people would understand me in hell”
Kuang-Hui Liu’s 2020 Taiwanese romantic drama Your Name Engraved Herein was released on Netflix only a few days before Christmas, but the film’s impending arrival led to many bitten nails and withheld breaths for months on end. This was largely due to its status as Taiwan’s highest-grossing LGBTQ film of all time. It is important to note that Taiwan, a self-governing island, became the first place in Asia to legalise same-sex marriage in May 2019.
As TIME magazine states, when the director decided to make the film, his main objective wasn’t “to make a gay film, but a personal one.” Liu declared that 80% of Chang Jia-Han’s, the protagonist’s, experiences are based on his own life. However, the filmmaking process brought on painful reflections, which only served to fatten up the corpus of the film’s haunting love story.
Aside from the volatile relationship between sexuality and faith that propels the film’s most ardent bouts of self-loathing, Liu noted that he wanted to “highlight some of the unfortunate stories that may have come too early” to join the celebrations of May 2019. After all, his generation’s joy was a bittersweet one. The calamity of the film’s true events makes Your Name Engraved Herein one of the most poignant love stories of our time – mainly because it is as prevalent as it is profound.
In 1987, following the end of martial law in Taiwan, Chang Jia-han/ ‘A-han’ (Edward Chen) crosses paths with a fellow schoolboy, Wang Bo-De/ ‘Birdy’ (Jing-Hua Tseng). Immediately attracted to Birdy’s daredevil nature, A-han is elated when the other boy seems equally transfixed by him. As their friendship blooms, so does their choking fear of wanting to cross unspeakable lines. As they give into this panic, tensions rise and a love triangle is formed to keep unwanted feelings at bay. However, the heart is not to be toyed with, and the consequences of the boys’ actions mark them for the rest of their lives.
The lifting of martial law is meant to symbolise new liberties, a breath of fresh air that accompanies the acceptance of girls into a previously all-boys establishment. This notion, phrased in the film on numerous occasions, is nothing short of desolating, as the boys realise that their own situation prevents them from ever experiencing not only freedom, but even the smallest semblance of hope.
This tear in the psyche is brought to the surface in A-han and Birdy’s discordant co-existence. In many ways, they are the yin and yang of courage – which in itself appears to be life’s most elusive quality – as the boys’ roles keep reversing. When one is willing to sever the connection between a bully’s fist and a shock-split jaw, the other cowers. Then, when one builds up the courage to speak of the truth, the other shreds quivering emotions to mask the true nature of the candour the other wishes to speak of.
This torturous magnetism is softened both visually and aurally, as the story is plunged into soft lullaby blues and jazz notes that ring coquettishly in the background. These are accompanied by wine-stained reds, moody violets and eggy ambers, which all come together to breach unspoken words in order to unveil the passion both A-han and Birdy are paralysed by.
Their initial playfulness marks an exuberant merger of frienship and love, innocent to both minds until a rival is presented. This idea of a special friendship that teeters on the verge of something undefined is reminiscent of Roger Peyrefitte’s 1943 novel Special Friendships (French: Les amitiés particulières). In both works of art, religion is an unshakeable presence that both distorts peace between two boys, and obstructs one’s path to self-acceptance.
What makes Your Name Engraved Herein stand apart from many other gay romance films is the unique quality only Asian productions possess – a subtlety of expression that is so hard to imitate, and so cherished in its authenticity. The dialogue is never too revealing, the boys’ furtive gazes are never cloying, and tragedy is never over-romanticised.
It is up to the audience to interpret the film’s subtle hints as to what is happening in the mind of each of the protagonists. A gentle touch, though heated and lingering, is never presented as overbearing. It is the actors’ devotion to their roles that bewitches the audience, unearthing the complexity of thoughts and emotions that remain maddeningly elusive until the end.
Despite moments of temporary bliss and physical completion – never intermixed – fear permeates everything. It is the single most dominating entity on-screen, peeling back fingernails and clenching flesh-starved fists. With tensions running high, the pendulum swings from feverish longing to frosty indifference. This portrayal of the dual nature of passion is as realistic as it is chilling. Sensual touches are welcomed, but they never discard their foreboding appearance in the eyes of the other.
The film embraces suffering quite unabashedly. It translates the feeling of being gradually extracted from one’s own body and unable to stomach the thought of its new possessor wishing to abandon it out of fear. The coarseness of this travesty is never soothed because neither of the boys pretends the feeling is unrequited.
They reach an impasse in the amount of torment they are willing to go through for the other, and how much of themselves they are ready to throw away in the process. This leads to a struggle with an insurmountable force – coming to terms with oneself in a hostile environment. The only physical manifestation of relief can be achieved through screaming, bloodshed, penetrating the soft valves of intimacy.
Essentially, Your Name Engraved Herein is a story of wasted time. The film could easily be perceived as a cautionary tale, if not for the fact that it is simply an account of one man’s nostalgic regrets. It is this very lack of grandiosity that brings the film to everyone’s doorstep, offering a slice of a fresh, bleeding heart that was impaled at a time when other flavours were more to everyone’s taste. In the end, the film strives to reinforce the message of acceptance and love in the hearts of all those who are still trapped, especially in Asian countries.